Pedagogy as Poetry: What if you never taught again?

Say it all ends tomorrow. Say I contract something nasty and can’t beat it. Say I say the wrong thing and can’t get ahead of the lawsuit against my license. Say I never show up again. Say I just disappear. How would I account for my last week of teaching? Would I look back with disdain? Regret? Accomplishment? Solace? Sadness? Relief?

In a Film class we watched Philadelphia. We witnessed a stirring performance by Tom Hanks wasting away. AIDS. 7:45-9:15 AM Monday and Wednesday. Homophobia. Opera. Discrimination. Mortality. Philly. I feel like these topics are important. Maybe wrong hour of the day but more than important. I feel like identity—who we are…creating…what we can do for the world—is something especially real for my students these days. If this was my last class, I’d be glad I made my students uncomfortable.

During 2nd Period on Tuesday, our school shut down regular class to boot up a practice test investigating whether our rural connectivity is ready for a week of PARCC testing in April. This is the second day in three weeks we have sacrificed an entire period on this issue, let alone the dozen or so student-hours devoted to testing since August and the next two-dozen ahead in April and May. Students log on and see how far they can get with the test. I’m the monkey dancing between tables troubleshooting and noting the issues. They are not supposed to breeze through the 24 question session; students should answer a question roughly every 3 minutes so we stay logged on long enough to measure if institutional readiness (not mastery-readiness). An hour crawls by on the back of a tortoise. If this were my last day of fake testing, I would die a full-filled teacher, filled with all the wrong things associated with education.

But during this fake test, I get to be a real person. I ask students about whether they have plans for a life post-graduation (yeah, it took me this long in the school year to be a real person). Most of them say college. Some have no idea what that word means for them: programs, NM or beyond, liberal arts (?), scholarships/debt. Some hope to be athletes. Some don’t know either way. I ask enough questions and have enough tortoise/time to know that none have deluded themselves into seeing college (let alone graduation) as something it is not. This process, watching students struggle or relish voicing their hopes and fears, is worth every moment of fake tests. I get to see them as young people with goals and dreams, not scores. Not data. Though, if this were it, I’d disappear a disappointed man. So many unanswered questions about some many undetermined destinies.

Today, I tested (more?!) my students on our 7-week unit connecting Reconstruction to Jim Crow and Civil Rights. I don’t remember learning about these US History topics within one unit. As a high schooler, I was never asked to connect the movements within the Civil Rights Era to the eject-button end of Reconstruction. I don’t remember learning that anti-miscegenation laws remained in ink on the Alabama Constitution until the 21st Century and how this law harkens back to the ugliness of Jim Crow: beyond the straight-line time and space of a textbook’s carefully curated reality. I wonder if teaching these periods disjointedly within the commonly accepted linear narrative of history is intentional. Is it easier to create ignorance when crucial narratives pause and pick back up every 10 chapters? Textbooks could rather be organized by thematic units: Immigration, Civil Rights, Foreign Policy, Boom and Bust. What my students learned, as evidenced by hard data, tells me we are learning correctly. If I never came back, they’d know we did something disruptive and subversive. Maybe, they’d know why I was gone.

On Tuesdays, a group of students from across the district come to my classroom to envision how Emotional Intelligence initiatives can support future students in our future schools. This hour-long weekly meeting went down as they usually do: quickly, inefficiently, with snacks. One senior led us through a team building exercise. Five balloons, five strips of tape, one tallest sculpture. Lots of popping. Lots of laughter. Lots of EQ-rooted shit talking. Lotsa sorta tall balloon creations. Did I say to build the tallest sculpture in the room, or just the tallest your own group can achieve? Was this a competition? Is it healthy for students like us to always interpret activities as competitive? Kid did a great job leading us. Sometimes, and considering the long-winded and meandering unnecessarily-circular-hyper-socially-aware dialoguing that usually pushes us well beyond an hour, popping balloons after a long day is the perfect way to cleanse my room of stagnant air. If this were all I had, I’d carry around with me a bag of balloons and a roll of tape for the rest of my life.

Oh, and this of course: Yesterday, we had to upload a plethora of documents for Observation. For most conversations around school among the staff, observation is not usually capitalized, but everyone carries an air like it should be. We belittle it in the same hour that we pour over our documentation and preparedness. So. I uploaded every teacher reflection I had written for my blog (I don’t post everything) to prove I was thinking about my practice. I threw a word document together with a bunch of curricular information to prove I think I know how to approach teaching. Pasted a screenshot of these digital attendance sheets correlated to those gridded grade books as evidence that I keep accurate records. I didn’t upload anything about how I engage in a professional community. I didn’t provide evidence how I implement professional development. After all, I’m aiming for a 3 out of 5. That 3 keeps the dreaded Professional Growth Plan at bay. I think I adequately cleared the artificial hurdle. It’s not that I refuse to engage professionally or pay attention during PD (though I fantasize about refusing both), but I—well if this was my last week, I’d rest knowing my work existed beyond metrics.

Say tomorrow, it all ends. Is it what you uploaded? Is it what you taught? How you taught? Would you mourn how calcified your disdain had become or the classroom joys you’ll never get back? Say tomorrow, it all ends. How would you help young people if you knew it was your last chance? Maybe they’d be better off if you disappeared. Maybe you’d deliver the instruction of a lifetime. Maybe, it’d be enough to do what you always do. Maybe it never is.

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